September’s Books

Books Bought

Chris Mooney “Republican War on Science” (paperback)

Some general physical chemistry books for reference

[That was it?]

Books Borrowed

Robert M. Sapolsky “A Primate’s Memoir”

Simon Winchester “A Crack at the Edge of the World”

Clifford Pickover “The Moebius Strip”

Marc Siegel “False Alarm: The truth about the epidemic of fear”

Books Read

Peter Singer and Jim Mason “The Way We Eat: Why our food choices matter”

Robert M. Sapolsky “A Primate’s Memoir”

Simon Winchester “A Crack at the Edge of the World”


So the semester has started with a vengeance as shown by the fact that I have read a lot less this month. The books I did read were great though, so perhaps I have become more selective. I did have one of my, “I must read a novel now” moments and reread Rosamund Pilcher or Dick Francis. Since I have read most of those books at least five times, I do not count them any more. They are simply there to switch off my brain.

Robert M Sapolsky is very funny. I borrowed this because I read his essay in “What We Believe but Cannot Prove” and that was very clever and spoke directly to me. In WWBBCP he wrote:

“…mine will be a fairly simple, straightforward proposal of an unjustifiable believe: namely that there is not God(s) or such a thing as a soul (whatever the religious inclined mean by that word).”

And goes on to say:

My own inclination is to not believe without requiring proof. Mind you, it would be perfectly fine with me if there were a proof that there is no God. Some might view this as a potential public health problem, given the number of people who would then run damagingly amok. But there is no shortage of folks running amok already, thanks to their believe in God, so it wouldn’t be any more of a problem.

…A religious friend of mine once remarked that the concept of God is useful, because you can berate God during the bad times. But it is clear to me that I don’t need to believe there is a God in order to berate him.”

So due to this eloquence I borrowed a Primate’s Memoir. Which is as equally as eloquent starting with:

“I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.”

“I joined the troop in the last year if the reign of Solomon. In those days, the other members of the troop were Leah, Deborah, Aaron, Isaac, Naomi, and Rachel. I didn’t plan beforehand to give the baboons Old Testament names. It just happened.”

I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the second chapter:

“When I went off to Africa for the first time to join the baboons, I had an array of skills and experiences that would prepare me for anything I’d encounter in that new world. I knew a great deal about the subway system in New York City and, the top that off, had even obtained a driver’s license a week before leaving for my trip. I have been to a few of the Mid-Atlantic states, as well as New England. I had backpacked extensively in the Catskill Mountains in New York and once had to lie very still while a porcupine waddled past my sleeping bag. I had managed to make a campfire once, allowing me to melt my Velveeta cheese on my crackers, instead of eating them cold as was my typical meal on a backpacking trip. I had even broadened my food horizons in other ways, preparing myself for the novelties to come-I had recently escaped the dietary restrictions of my Orthodox religious upbringing, and thus, in the prior year, had had my first slice of pizza, first Chinese meal, and first Indian food (although admittedly, in the last case, I ate only the rice, denouncing everything else as to spicy to possibly be safe). Best of all, in case there were any fronts in which I was lacking useful experiences, I had read a book on almost any subject that could possibly be relevant to my new life ahead. I’d be able to handle anything thrown at me.”

He goes onto to reveal his naivete and show how incompetent and innocent he was. Also how unprepared he was for the realities that were Africa. He also shares his excitement:

“I will forever ache with the knowledge that I can never again spend my first weeks out in the bush-a first introduction to the baboons, a first afternoon spent meeting the nearby villagers, the first realization that behind every bush and tree there was an animal. Each night in my tent, I would fling myself down in exhaustion at all the novelty, with the fatigue of looking and listening and smelling at everything so intently.”

He goes on to explain how he realises that he had been ripped off in Nairobi and then how he lost all inhibitions to do the same, especially when money didn’t come through from the States on time. He describes how he developed his darting technique – Sapolsky was studying how different animals respond to stress. What are the baboon’s social behavior, his social rank, his emotional life has to do with what disease he gets, especially, stress-related diseases. So he needs to anesthetize the animals to take blood and measure hormones. Which gives lead to a whole load of problems, that unless you have done similar work, you would never have thought would need to be considered. Such as if the animal is ill, had a fight, mated, knows you are going to dart them, you cannot as these will alter the animal’s hormone levels.

The whole book is full of gems such as I have quoted above and is a quick and easy read. In between talking about the baboons and his interactions with them, Sapolsky also introduces Kenyan culture, the Masai and how they are being dragged willynilly into the twentieth century. How the other Kenyan racial groups interact with each other. How the world is beginning to even alter his own park due to enlargement of tourist centers and the Masai. He travels out of Kenya to the Sudan and other places. He sort of gets kidnapped by a gang and also by truck driving Berbers (my interpretation). He even manages to introduce the love of his life, his wife Lisa.

The book is very moving towards the end as he finds out that his baboons are inadvertently contracting TB from bad meat being dumped in the park and yet the government cannot/will not do anything about it. He loses a large number of his baboon friends to this plague of TB. He realizes, sadly, that on the scheme of things:

“The tidal waves of AIDS in Africa, desertification and war and hunger make my particular little melodrama seem self indulgent and small potatoes, a tragedy for a whitey comfortable and privileged enough to be sentimental about animals on the other side of the globe. But still, I miss those baboons.”

This was a fabulous book and I read more of Sapolsky’s books.
Simon Winchester’s book was harder to get into. I don’t know if that was because Sapolsky’s book was so easy, and because Winchester’s earlier books were also easy reads. In fact, I haven’t yet finished “a crack at the edge of the world ” as it moves very slowly. Geologically slowly, perhaps? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The book is very interesting as he explores the North American tectonic plate which stretches from Iceland to California, its western edge being, of course, the St Andreas Fault. The book was presumably written and published to celebrate on the centenary of the San Fransisco’s Earthquake and allows Winchester to indulge in his love of geology. Reading it has taught me a lot about American geology which, in some ways, is more hidden than British geology. I didn’t know, for example, that the NA plate is splitting in the middle around New Madrid, MO and that the Trans-Alaskan pipeline crosses the Denali Fault which is where the Pacific plate is diving underneath the NA plate. The engineers of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline allowed for expansion, by putting in curves and Teflon-coated sliders beneath the supports to allow for the movement of the earth underneath. So far this has worked and no oil was spoilt due to siesmic events; even during a massive earthquake in 2002 which caused slide-slips of as much as eighteen feet.

The final book I read this month, I am not going to review now other than to say that “the way we eat now” is a very important book looking at the food routes in the US. It was helpful in that it reconfirmed my vegetarianism – and yes, I probably should give up dairy and eggs again after reading this book. What I hadn’t realized was how far behind the US was from Europe, especially Britain, in terms of animal rights. I was reminded that domestic pets have more rights than domestic food animals. I love my cat, but why should he be treated better or differently than one providing me with sustenance? Oh, he is a great comfort and a good friend but I don’t perceive him as human either. I hope at some point to do a review of several books written, both here and in Britain, about similar subjects. When I have some time!

The best book this month has to be “a primate’s memoir”.


2 thoughts on “September’s Books

  1. Unfortunately I’m on a budget as I am saving up to buy a nice digital SLR camera by the New Year – so I can’t buy new books. I hope the library gets it soon.

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